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Interview with Jodi Tobman, The Salamander Group

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Jodi Tobman first came to Aruba in 1989 as a representative of a travel charter company for a six month period. In 1991, she was once more assigned to Aruba at which point she decided to try to build her life here. After working for various tour operators, in 1994 she changed careers and opened her first store. After twenty years, her company, The Salamander Group (Salamander Holdings NV) now runs 8 stores and she shares her story with us.

 

Tell us about Salamander Holding and when you first started.

Jodi Tobman (JT): In 1994 I opened my first store at the Mill Resort named The Juggling Fish. In 1998 a second location of The Juggling Fish opened street side at the Oude Molen. In 1999 I opened a third location at the Aruba Beach Club and The Coconut Trading Company at the Marriott Ocean Club also opened that year. Soon after that, The Lazy Lizard opened its first branch on the De Palm Pier. All of these three brands are now in operation but at different locations.

In 2005, I opened T.H. Palm & Company and that is more or less when my stores came onto the local radar screen. Prior to that, although we had a lot of local clients, people did not really link the various stores together and were not familiar with The Salamander Group. At The Juggling Fish we always had local clients because we had interesting gifts and were open until late, past 6PM. By operating with extended hours, we were serving a need. I had worked with tourists and knew they were disappointed that the shops closed early in Aruba; we offered them an alternative which suited the market at that time. Locals also liked it, because when they came out of work and they needed a last minute birthday present, they knew they could depend on us to be open and offer an interesting array of gifts ideas. With the opening of Caribbean Queen in 2012 and Caribbean Clothing Co. in 2013, we further cemented the belief that we are open and always have some new and exciting gifts for any occasion.

Tell us about the philosophy behind the stores.
JT: Honestly, there a few different ones. They have different aspects. One of them is to be able to serve the community and the visitors, who become part of the community when they are here. Another one is to create a working environment for people that is more in line with what how I believe people should work, a culture of shared responsibility per se. And the third is to give people who enter our stores an experience, so that they will find things that made them want to laugh or cry or smile or share it with someone else. We hear a lot of excitement in the stores from our clients while they shop!

We have visitors who come back every single day; they come back because they can’t see it all at once. We have locals, who come in for retail therapy. Many local mothers, who are happy to be somewhere where they don’t have to talk to anyone; they can just come in and amuse themselves,.

For the employee part, I encourage my employees to learn and to grow; no one just stands there waiting for a sale. If they don’t like that challenge then we are not their company. In The Salamander Group all employees have a key. If I can’t trust them to open up the store and to be alone in the store, then they shouldn’t be working for me. Along the way we found out that some of them shouldn’t be working for me because they couldn’t be trusted. However that was few and far between. Twenty years in business and we still haven’t changed that policy of trust. I believe given the opportunity to do the right thing, most people will!

Everyone full time employee has a key. Everybody cashiers, everybody cleans, re-stocks, merchandises and everybody sells. Some are better at some tasks than others, in which case they trade tasks with each other but they all do everything and most importantly, that creates a team.

My main mission was that I wanted people to have options, to buy good quality, unique products that they wouldn’t find elsewhere in Aruba, to give clients an experience that they enjoy. That is key.

All of your stores have different names and are slightly different, why?
JT: I currently have 8 stores and six of them are different brands. There are two of The Juggling Fish, one sells swimwear and the other does not, both are located next door to each other on the beachside of The Playa Linda Beach Resort. The Lazy Lizard is probably the closest to The Juggling Fish in terms of products. It has two locations, one at South Beach Centre and one at Alhambra Casino. It also carries t-shirts and some higher end clothing lines that attracts our local clients. Then there is The Coconut Trading Company, just gifts, no clothing or anything that says Aruba on it also located at South Beach Centre. The T.H. Palm & Company carries home accessories, clothing, jewelry, things for pets and all kinds of fun and unique gift items.

Caribbean Queen was something I had in my head for a long time. I always wanted to do something that would honor the daughters of the soil and those like me who came here and put their feet in the soil and bloomed. So the concept that I could have every month, a different Caribbean Queen, someone who is living in Aruba and making crafts with her hands was what drove me to open a new brand. There is so much talent in Aruba! So to be able to take a different woman every month and showcase her craft and call her a Caribbean Queen, that is very exciting.

And then last year came the addition of Caribbean Clothing Co. on the main street. I was standing in town, in front of a building and suddenly I just felt that store. However, it was very difficult to get it going. It is a beautiful, high-end store, but not close enough to the cruise ship terminal to pickup tourist traffic, it was built for our local market that enjoys T.H. Palm & Company but can't always get out of town to the high rise sector. It is mainly clothing, men's and women's, with a few gifts and accessories. Our men's clothing has proven to be quite popular.

What do you think of the retail business in Aruba? Do you think there is still room for growth?
JT: That is a difficult question. I believe in a free market economy but at the same time I think we have overdone it. I think we have compromised the beauty of our island with some very unattractive commerce and in doing so, we have done the community a disservice with all of the kiosks and tents and tables that have sprung up everywhere. We have built a beautiful main street, we have invited the Ritz Carlton in, we asked our already fine hotels that have made and maintained an investment in Aruba to renovate and refurbish and then we drive our guests by some commerce that does not fit with the vision to showcase our island with pride such as the tent park in town and the one across from Valero.

I ask often ask myself what do we want to be as an island? Do we want to look sloppy or do we want to look like the beautiful, Caribbean island that we can be? Our people are better educated than the other islands. Arubans are special, warm and loving and we should be able to show that. It really upsets me a great deal to see how shabby we look in many areas of our island. My greatest fear is that more malls and kiosks will be built and that eventually we will have empty spaces and start to look run down because we will not all be able to sustain ourselves.

As a business woman or man, you have to be able to sustain your business. Every day you have to look at the situation and think how you are going to weather all potential storms. You strategize and you hope for the best. These are difficult times; there is no retailer who is going to tell you that anything in the tourist sector is going up. It is not going up, it hasn’t been going up since 2008 and of course 9/11 also threw us a curve ball as people who shopped with a fury now limit themselves to one piece of baggage. A lot of locals shop abroad or they order through the internet, this also affects local commerce. It is not an easy business, retail. People think it is an easy business, and that is why so many people fail; they forget that their cash register is not their wallet.

What are the greatest challenges to retailers?
JT: The biggest are the over-saturation of the market and the cost of doing business. The kiosks which are visually blocking the stores and creating traffic patterns that steer walkers away from the brick and mortar stores takes a toll. There is a perception that kiosks are cheaper but that is not always true. Tourists see the kiosks first; many buy there and then browse elsewhere. As a business woman I understand why so many landlords insist on having kiosks, it makes good sense for their bottom line. However it does not benefit their retailers and that is not always taken into consideration.

Our labor laws are also a challenge. Our lease agreements require we are open 7 days; some employees like working on Sunday so they can be off when their partner is off, or off on a weekday to do errands. The intention with the laws is most likely good, but the implementation can be very difficult when we are serving a visiting market, shift work, lease agreements etc....The cost of doing business in Aruba is very high. Bank fees are high; import duties are high, freight charges, wage taxes etc... this is a challenge for all of us. It is something everyone is talking about.

What would you suggest?
JT: I would like to see some consciousness, for all of us, as we develop our businesses and create new opportunities on our island to ask, is it good for Aruba? I could take some of my locations and cheapen them by selling lesser quality goods with tasteless souvenir items and I would probably become a wealthy woman. But I cannot bring myself to do so. The day I have to start selling junk will be the day my business goes up for sale. Whatever we do, it has to be good for our island. That is my motto, if it is good for Aruba; it is good for Jodi Tobman. If it is good for Jodi Tobman but bad for Aruba then ultimately it is not good for Jodi Tobman. Thus, if I am going to do something that does not serve the community, does not serve my employees or does not serve the mission that I have, which is to offer clients a great shopping experience with good service & unique quality products, then I should be out of this industry, consider another line of work.

How do you stay in touch with the local market?
JT: Talking, asking questions, being out and about hearing what people are saying. I recently launched my first commercial. It was one of the most interesting things I have done in my career and I enjoyed the making of this ad immensely. The cast are all local personalities, people I admire. It is an unusual ad, it does not really have the sound or feel of a commercial. It is a big expense to air it in the cinemas where we currently show it, but it was a lot of fun to create. I am hoping it will be an effective way to attract more locals to the stores. Ultimately if you have local business, it is the highest compliment you can be paid as the local community knows where everything is and if they pick your store to come to, you know you are doing something right.

We also have our Tikkun Olam program, which is our corporate responsibility program. Tikkun Olam is Hebrew for repair the world. We have selected a number of local charity organizations and put them on our community menu in five of our brands. When a client makes a purchase, we donate a percentage of the sale asking each client to choose from the community menu. I started this program in 2007 in T.H. Palm & Company and I thought that by 2014 it would be in all of the stores. Unfortunately it still is not in The Juggling Fish, however; it is in all of our other brands. Our local clients like this, that we Think Global but Act Local.

It is not easy to keep this program running because I am not donating from profits, I am donating from sales. This means that some years I am donating more than is healthy for the company, but I believe that you have to give to the community you call home, a healthy Aruba is good for all of us.

Is it difficult to find good employees?
JT: It is not as difficult as it used to be. We are open on Sundays and until 10 at night and years ago, it wasn’t easy to find locals who wanted to work for us because they could work in a store in Playa and be off on Sundays and go home early every day. At that time, we hardly had any Arubans working for us. At one point I had nine part-time Arubans working for The Salamander Group because that was the only way I could get Arubans to work with us, adapt ourselves to their schedule. It’s easier now, but we also carry fewer employees on our payroll, a fact caused by the increase in the cost of doing business and the fallout from all the kiosks and tables competing alongside of us.

Currently I have a lot of great people working for me, people with a positive attitude who are ready to make things happen. I am very proud of them. I have people who have been with me for awhile and we reward them at 5, 10 and 15 years. A few years ago I had to restructure. I didn’t like the direction the company was going and I chose to hire a business consultant. That created change and as a result, I lost a lot of people who were with me for a long time. At the time it was painful but in hindsight it was the best that could have happened for both parties. You have to be flexible; the company is called Salamander for a reason. It is because a salamander is fast, adaptable, and does no harm. I think that is important.

Do you do the buying yourself?
JT: Yes, I buy often and this gets more difficult every year because the competition is getting tougher, but that is a challenge I enjoy. I also really like the relationships I have developed with my retail partners, many who have become close friends. I still love the process! It is my favorite part of the job.

What do you think of the hub concept that the government want to introduce?
JT: I think if the government wants people to invest in Aruba then we need to make it possible so that they can. You not only have to talk the talk, you also have to walk the talk. I think that it is good that the business license application process was made easier. But that is just one part. Customs, the Tax Department, import duties, work permits, the bank, the Chamber, everything needs to work efficiently if we want to effectively invite investors to Aruba. We have the talent; we just need to get it straight.

What would you advise new entrepreneurs who want to start their business in Aruba?
Number one is to believe in yourself and your concept. Do not let others be your signpost. Do your research to know if your concept is viable. You have to have enough funding to get you through the first year. You cannot assume that you can pay yourself a salary in the beginning. If you really believe in what you are going to do, take a part-time job to bring in your income. I could not pay myself in my first year of business and I worked part time for the first years so that I had money to live off of.

Remember that your cash register is not your wallet. How you conduct yourself in your company will be how you set the stage for your business going forward. You can make mistakes and make amends but it is a lot easier not to make mistakes in the first place. Give your clients what they need, explain to them when you cannot do. Do not tell them yes when the answer is no. Don’t over promise and under-deliver. You have to believe in yourself. Love what you do. Be passionate, and be willing to make a sacrifice.

What would you advise small entrepreneurs who want to take the step to the next level?
JT: Think twice. Bigger is not always better. You really want to ask yourself, where you are from a profitability stand point. And where do you want to be from that same vantage point? If you do it without a lot of thought, you might find yourself in a situation where you are working harder and your profits are about the same. You really have to ask yourself if the market can sustain it. Do you have enough funds to sustain it? What is the goal? Honestly, I didn’t have a master plan. Things came up and I decided to do them because I was exited or because I was passionate without thinking them through from a financial stand point. I don’t have any regrets but I would do a few things differently with the wisdom I have now.

It is all about what you want. If you are excited about it and are willing to put in the time, if you understand that with growth comes more employees and responsibilities, then by all means, make a business plan and go for it.

Are there any future plans you would like to share with us?
JT: Not at this moment. I have my eye on one more location. If it comes out for me then I will take it, if it does not, I am happy to hold where I am. I want to enjoy my life and want to see my employees continue to grow. I want my company to run more efficiently; to keep growing myself personally and see what can I learn and do differently to benefit myself, my company and my clients.

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